Sketches of Church Life in Colonial Connecticut
Being the Story of the Transplanting of the Church of England into Forty Two Parishes of Connecticut,
with the Assistance of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel
IT was in the year 1748 that the Rev. Matthew Graves, missionary in New London for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, received an urgent invitation to visit the town of Branford. The invitation was accepted, and the Rev. Mr. Graves gives us a most flattering report of his first visit to our parish. He says, "I performed service at Branford to a most agreeable sight of auditors, who behaved very well, and some of the chief Presbyterians came to my lodgings and returned me thanks."
This is the first church in our town of which we have a definite record; but Dr. Johnson had probably visited here before, as he writes that during the previous summer he "had preached to large numbers, both in Guilford and Branford."
In 1752 a parish had been organized and the Rev. Ebenezer Punderson placed in charge. His services were however necessarily irregular, as he had, all together, the three parishes, New Haven, Guilford, and Branford, and often found difficulty in crossing the ferry, "where," says our historian, "he must often have passed the house where Governor Saltonstall, the stout champion of Congregationalism, had lived and held services."
He was succeeded by the Rev. Solomon Palmer, a native of Branford, who had, for fourteen years, been a Congregational minister at Cornwall in this State, when one Sunday he surprised his congregation by declaring for Episcopacy. His labors were very acceptable to all, and he so strengthened the little flock in Branford, that in 1776 the parish had much increased and decided to build a church and to keep Mr. Palmer as "resident minister to themselves alone."
"But we now enter the clouds of the Revolution," says our historian. "It was impossible that Episcopacy could have flourished in America at that time. The names Tory and Churchman were often synonymous. The little town was alive with preparations for war, sending detachments to the field, making and storing gun-powder, and setting watches on the coast, at Branford Point, Indian Neck, and Stony Creek. In troublous times the interest in affairs of state becomes supreme and interest in religion diminishes. Obscurity settles down then over our parish until 1784, when it emerges with a great promise of strength and prosperity. The next year, we have it recorded, that the Rev. James Sayre be invited to come to Branford and open the church, that is, to have an initial service, as it were, of the new parish, for there was even then no church edifice.
This same Mr. Sayre was evidently in charge of the parish during the erection of the first church building, and a few years later he speaks affectionately in a letter of his "little former flock in Branford."
In December, 1784, a subscription paper was started to build the church. A part of the subscriptions was paid in labor and goods, and in due time the timber was drawn, the frame finished, and the next year a contract was given to one Jacob Tyler of Southington, to complete the church. A part of this contract was to be paid in cattle and cash and a part in West India rum and dry goods. The work was now progressing rapidly, and between the months of December and May, 1786, the church was ready to be occupied.
This old church was a most unpretentious edifice, being built very much after the school-house model. Dr. Beardsley, in his History of Connecticut, very aptly describes this old building, when he says that an "ill-proportioned edifice was erected in Branford and occupied as early as May, 1786." But although a homely structure, it represented much devotion and toil on the part of the parish. There are many people now living who remember this quaint old church, where the Sunday school used to gather about the wide rail to be catechized by the Bishop, where the pulpit was high and stood against the wall, having a small dark robing room under it, and the altar stood just below. Over the entrance was a semicircular gallery, where the choir sang old-time music to the tones of the bass-viol, flute, and violin. For about forty years there was no way of heating the old church, but afterwards a stove for burning wood was put in, the pipe going through the window, in right primitive fashion. The seats were free, while expenses were paid by a direct tax. From this time on, the sources of the church were kept up by resident ministers and others, with some irregularity.
The cornerstone of the present church was laid in April, 1851, very near the site of the old church on the green, where to this day its line of foundation stone appears through the turf.
It is indeed fitting that we should join in this 200th celebration of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, for from the first rare visits of its missionaries have arisen the foundations of our church and parish, and from them has come the inestimable privilege of hearing proclaimed in our midst, the glad tidings of the Gospel of peace.